We picked out our baby chicks at the local feed store in early April. After doing some research and based on the (approximately one dozen) breeds available to choose from, we decided to prioritize breed characteristics of friendliness and egg-laying ability. We came home with 6 chicks that were 2 or 3 days old – two sisters each from 3 different breeds: Buff Orpington, Delaware and Wyandotte. The chicks cost just $3 each. With baby chick food, food and water dispensers and a heating lamp the total cost of our day at the feed store was about $60.
For the first 3 weeks the chicks resided in my daughter’s bathtub. We set up a heat lamp for them, lay down cardboard with pine shavings on top, and played with the chicks a bunch every day. One of our dogs, the kindest, gentlest pup we’ve ever had (Westley the Wheaten terrier) was allowed to observe and bond with the chicks, too. Our cocker spaniel-poodle mix, Obi, was banned from their presence due to his history of hunting for and killing mice.
Like all babies, chicks mainly do 3 things: (1) Eat, (2) Poop/Pee, and (3) Sleep. Instead of crying, they CHEEP-CHEEP-CHEEPed whenever they were awake. Aside from the pooping/peeing bit, they were super cute. Also – very messy. They have natural scratching and pecking instincts (there are no insects in the bathtub, girls!) and they incessantly kicked their own poop into their water dispenser. It was a twice-daily chore to clean that thing out. As they grew they liked to run around, stir up dust (the bathtub area got pretty gross) and shed little feathers. About the time they started flapping their wings and jumping up on the edge of the tub we decided it was time to move them to their new home….
THE CHICKEN PALACE
OK – I am the first to admit, I went a bit overboard on this coop. I know plenty of people who have obtained free used chicken coops from retired chicken owners, or who have converted old sheds or other outbuildings into coops, and everything has worked out for them. For some reason the stories that have stuck with me as a wannabe-chicken-owner, however, are the stories about the chicken massacres – the rats, weasels, cats, dogs, foxes, raccoons, coyotes and eagles who have killed one, many or all of my friends’ chickens. I know that a certain amount of livestock loss to predators is to be expected in large-scale chicken operations. But these are my family’s backyard chickens and they live very close to our home. I am not cool with preventable chicken murder. SO….we built a fortress.
And by “we” I mean the found the coop plans online and hired some local handymen to build the coop. After buying a couple of books about chicken coops and doing online research I found the coop plans that worked best for us at Steamykitchen.com and downloaded them for $10. We liked this coop because the shed roof sort of matched the design of our own home, and because the coop yard was easily adjusted to open into the chicken moat/garden fence design I came up with (PHOTOS). Essentially the coop is an elevated wooden box with ramp the ladies use to walk down to their covered coop yard. The coop is large enough to house 8-10 chickens and contains 3 nesting boxes, 2 roosting bars and plenty of ventilation and warmth, depending on the season. The exterior door that leads to the ramp and coop yard has a battery-operated metal door which is set on a timer to slide open at sunrise and slide closed at sunset, keeping the ladies secure and protected. We purchased the automated coop doors from Chicken Guardian, and they have been super reliable and easy to use.
The covered coop yard is accessible to the chickens rain or shine, and that’s where their feed and water are located. We have set up a 3-gallon water dispenser that lasts about 1 week, and the feed dispenser holds about 5 lbs of feed. The yard is enclosed by hardware cloth (not chicken wire, which is much more flimsy) and that includes the floor of the coop yard, which was then covered by layers of gravel and sand. The ladies love to dig in the sand to look for bugs, take sand baths and make little hollows in which to relax. I’ve decided to compost the chicken’s poop in place, so every week or two we lay down a fresh layer of straw over their droppings. The plan is to clean this out every 6 months or so and to eventually use this compost in the garden.
TO FREE RANGE or NOT TO FREE RANGE
At this point I have not been allowing the chickens to free range – we live in a large open field with no trees or protection, and there are quite a few fast-moving coyotes and birds of prey (eagles and hawks) in our area. There are countless stories in our town about small dogs and cats being carried away by eagles, and it’s generally accepted that if your cat goes missing it’s been eaten by a coyote or a bird of prey. An eagle dropped a still-gasping salmon onto our lawn a few months ago after crows started harassing it, and our neighbor saw an eagle land in our yard and take off again with a young goose in its talons. In short – unless I’m outside with them within arms’ reach, I’m worried that our yard is too exposed for safe free-ranging. Maybe in a few years when the trees and shrubs we’re planting provide protection we’ll give it a try. I am working on a “chicken tractor” to use so that the ladies can get out in yard to eat bugs and weeds while protected from attack. In the meantime we have a different option available to them…
THE CHICKEN MOAT/DEER FENCE
The original design idea for our chicken “moat” came from a garden design I found while looking for deer-proof garden fencing. Aside from all the other wildlife already mentioned our town is home to hundreds of well-fed and rapidly breeding deer, and they love to eat anything they can reach. I’ve had deer eat every leaf of newly planted apple trees, and every flower on my strawberry plants. Options for deer fencing vary from high fencing (8 feet or more) to electric fencing to shorter double-fencing. With double fencing we take advantage of the fact that deer are reluctant to jump over two fences at a time, so we can use shorter (4-5 foot tall) fences spaced 3-4 feet apart. Yes, this costs more (more fence to build) but it keeps the garden views more pleasant and, for my purposes, allows the double fences to be used as a CHICKEN MOAT! The chickens want fresh air, space to peck, to hunt for bugs, dig, grab weeds, and run (they love to run), and I want them to do all of the above while being protected from predators and with my garden protected from the chickens amazing ability to tear up plants. With the double-fenced garden we provide the chickens with a 3.5 foot wide run that surrounds the entire 30 x 30 foot vegetable garden, giving them a total of 469 square feet of outside space in which to roam during the day. To make sure the ladies are protected from overhead attack the double fenced area has been covered with thick plastic netting.
As mentioned above, the total initial outlay for baby chicks and their starting supplies was only $60. In my estimation a perfectly adequate chicken coop could be purchased new from your local feed store or online (check out Saltbox Designs) for $1000 or less (and could be much cheaper if one repurposed existing structures or were gifted a used coop from a friend/neighbor). If one possesses tools and some basic carpentry know-how then building one’s own coop could be a fun and affordable project. In our case the cost of coop was much higher due to pickiness about the design of the coop (we wanted it to match our existing home – including the mahogany siding), lack of time and tools, and because labor costs on our little island suburb of Seattle are downright out-of-sight. I am not going to declare the actual final costs for our coop fortress because that’s a bit embarrassing, but my husband likes to say that our eggs will end up costing an average of $20/dozen for the next couple of years, and that may be technically correct…
As far as day-to-day costs of owning chickens – it’s really not bad. We feed them almost all of our kitchen scraps and keep their feeder filled with organic Scratch and Peck feed. A 20-lb bag of organic feed costs $30 and lasts 3-4 weeks for the 6 chickens. For a treat we feed them dried grubs -- they're really pretty gross to look at, but the girls love them and come running when we open the bag. I purchased one bale of straw ($12) for their coop yard and it should last 6 months. The 10-lb bulk bag of pine shavings for their coop should last 6 months, too, and that was only $10.
Our chickens started laying eggs just after 4 months of age. They are now 6 months old and from the 6 ladies we get, on average, 5 eggs per day. That is a lot of eggs, for our family of 4. In fact – sometimes it’s too many!
LOTS OF WAYS TO EAT EGGS
Of course there are many, MANY things to do with all of these eggs! In no particular order here are our favorite ways to eat eggs:
OTHER THINGS TO DO WITH EGGS
THINGS NOT TO DO WITH EGGS